Dairy at technological forefront

Published 26 August 14

dairy tech

In 2010, the UK Government produced its first food strategy document in 50 years. The ground-breaking Foresight Report in 2011 captured the specific challenges relating to the expanding population, shrinking resources and increasing climate change impacts.

This was set against a background of static Total Factor Productivity for UK agriculture – not surprising, given the previous lack of priority placed on farming and lack of investment in applied R&D.

But agricultural productivity is now back on the political agenda and the UK is trying to play catch-up in economically challenging circumstances. The UK Agri-Tech Strategy is investing £160m over five years to exploit the potential of technology to generate wealth and increase productivity.

The EU Horizon 2020 programme (€4.5 billion over six years) aims to stimulate productivity in sustainable agriculture through innovation and the direct involvement of the end-user – that is, the farmer – in research. Furthermore, the new Rural Development Programmes (2015-20) propose the establishment of groups, including farmers and researchers, to adapt or implement existing research to address problems and opportunities.

Of all the ruminant sectors, the dairy industry has always been the most technology-aware and British dairy farmers have never been in a better position to exploit the potential of new and emerging knowledge.

DairyCo’s R&D team sees enormous potential for further advancement. The new ‘omic’ technologies (‘genomics’ being one), allows us to better understand fundamental aspects of biology and physiology as applied to animal production. The increased computing power enables combining and analysing large data sets and examines relationships, creating new insight and predictive capability.ag tech

It also advances in our ability to automatically measure and monitor metabolites, to control engineering and to monitor behaviour, which will help us manage physical resources and improve animal husbandry and performance.

We are also increasingly able to share data and resources with other countries. Genetic selection for improved feed efficiency is just one area benefiting from a global perspective. We are also borrowing thinking and technologies from industries outside of agriculture, such as accelerometers, originally produced for the gaming industry but now economically viable to incorporate into telemetry applications for dairy cattle.

So where should our priorities lie? DairyCo’s annual R&D budget is around £2m – broadly equivalent to the cost of three medium sized BBSRC research projects. Yet we have around 50 experiments or projects on the books at any one time.

Two major avenues of research are the long term research partnerships we established in June 2011 (‘Soils, Forage and Grassland’ and ‘Health, Welfare and Nutrition’), involving most of the UK universities and institutes leading on dairy science, to help restore capacity in the UK to deliver applied dairy research.

We are now developing our R&D priorities for the period 2015 - 2020 to align with the industry-wide strategy ‘Leading the Way’, which aims to eliminate the dairy trade deficit by 2025.

Broadly speaking, DairyCo’s R&D will focus on competitiveness; involve farmers more closely in research and development work, on-farm demonstration and knowledge exchange; extract funding from new Government and EU programmes wherever possible; and exploit international collaborations to share existing research information and avoid duplication.

These priorities are being guided by the farmer-led Research And Development Advisory Forum (RADAF), made up of nine progressive farmers operating a range of production systems and three independent experts. But we welcome further constructive input. If you would like to contribute to this process, please contact ray.keatinge@dairyco.ahdb.org.uk.

Dairy has a tremendous future globally but it will not be a smooth passage. We need to be at the technological and scientific forefront if Britain is going to compete and carve out a place for itself in that expanding market.